Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Problems with Militant Atheism

While I've been sick this past week, I've watched a lot of movies. One of them was Ben Stein's "Expelled," a documentary that looks at the scientific establishment's militant push to silence those in their field who believe the universe could have been designed by an intelligent force.

Between films, I read C.S. Lewis' book on miracles, aptly called "Miracles," a sprawling philosophical work that defends the Christian belief in God's ability and desire to interfere in nature's course. His ultimate goal is to prove the possibility of what he calls "The Grand Miracle," the Resurrection.

Though created some 50 years apart by authors with different objectives, both works get at the heart of the fallacy espoused by those who think the notion of a supreme being is utterly unreasonable.

Whether a naturalist (Lewis' foe) or an ardent evolutionist (Stein's target), the objections raised by religion's opponents always presuppose something about the universe and what's possible within its bounds.

I probably only understood about half of what Lewis was saying, but I did get this part, which he said infinitely more eloquently than I'll put it here: Miracles don't break the laws of nature. They validate them. The very fact that nature is expected to take a certain course is what makes unexplainable events exceptional. Miracles are exceptional by nature. They operate outside the observed patterns.

Lewis' point is that naturalists presuppose that Nature - that which we see and perceive with our senses - is all there is, or "the whole show," as he calls it in his oh-so-British prose. But this outlook is needlessly closed-minded, because we observe supernatural events each time an idea pops into our heads. Our thoughts, because they are controlled by a conscious force beyond mere molecular reactions in the brain, are miraculous. They are not part of "the whole show," Lewis argues.

Unlike Lewis, Ben Stein didn't have to make his own convincing argument. He just asked evolutionists simple questions, and the most brilliant minds in their camp started spinning in intellectual circles.

Darwin's theory of evolution speaks of how species changed into other species over millions of years of genetic mutation. When a mutation helped the organism survive, it lived longer and was able to propagate that advantageous trait to more offspring. Over time, these mutations multiplied and complex organisms are thought to have evolved from single cells.

Stein's movie proved that you don't even have to begin to dismantle the theory's problems to get under evolutionists' skin. You just have to talk about the uncertainty that evolution - even if true - leaves about the nature of the universe and its beginnings.

Stein posed the question: How did life originate? It was almost unbelievable to watch these "intellectual giants" squirm to find the answer. Even more remarkable were the lengths they reached to in order to keep from admitting even the possibility of an intelligent designer.

One guy who called religious people stupid earlier in the dialogue thought that life originated when natural forces blended together to create crystals. That was his explanation: Crystals, which are inorganic, created organic matter. And just when I thought they couldn't get more audacious, in stepped one of today's most celebrated - and militant - atheist thinkers, Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion."

Stein gave him the chance to bestow his omniscience on the masses by telling us where life came from.

His answer? It's possible that higher life forms could have seeded life on earth. In other words, aliens could've put us here. And get this: the aliens could've been created by an intelligent force.

Seriously? This is a man who demands empirical proof from religion and calls believers in God ignorant? Why does he have to create three degrees of separation to admit the possibility that intelligence could have created the universe?

His presupposition is that God, by any name, is not possible. Better aliens than a personal being who demands something of him.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Genuine Article

The world is yearning for real Christianity. Paradoxical statement? Maybe, but two conversations I had last week make me think that there's something to this.

I have a friend who's an unbeliever. I've been discussing Christianity with him since high school. His beef with my religion was never about its morality, its tenets, or how I lived it out. He believed in strict science, evolution over creation.

I talked with him again the other day, this time about Christian music. This friend is one of the most talented musicians I know. He can play anything he tries - drums, guitar, piano - anything. But what sets him apart even more than his talent is his passion. The drive to hear, play, and especially create music consumes him.

So imagine his disgust when he hears some of the saccharine Christian music of the radio: affirmation of faith after affirmation of faith. Encouragement after encouragement. There's not enough art in it, not enough struggle. Every lyric is just dripping with assurance. It's all so literal. He wonders how they're all so convinced.

Truth is, we're not, and my friend just wants to hear us admit it.

I talked the other day with another friend who is a believer. He recently went to a church he just didn't really enjoy. There was a lot of worship, a lot of music, but he felt that it was more a pep rally than a place where a fledgling faith could truly grow. To some, I'm sure it was an encounter with the Spirit of God. To him, it was a gathering of disparate souls, brought together by nothing more than the need to convince each other that what each of them believes is actually true.

On that last point, he's right. Just as Friend One didn't enjoy affirmation of faith in music for its own sake, Friend Two saw it as superfluous in the church setting. But I'd say both of them are wrong to condemn speaking to one another in encouragement. We need this in a world where we're beset on all sides with attacks on what our faith suggests.

But aren't they right to ask the church for a shred of authenticity and vulnerability? If music is expressive of the desires of our hearts, and Christians have found the deepest secret to the universe, shouldn't our poetry be multidimensional enough to impress the outsider with the beauty of what the idea of God implies? If worship is how that awe and devotion is put on display, shouldn't those outside be enraptured by the exhibition?

What both of these friends want is authenticity. They want to know that they can be a believer and still be themselves, failures and all. God has accepted us, just how we are. Outsiders need to know this, so they can know that he'll accept them too. They need to see the genuine article.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Free Music, New Features on My Blog

I've just won a wrestling match with my blog. After much bloodshed, I finally updated the sidebar content with square buttons that link to my Facebook, Twitter, YouTube sites and the RSS feed of my blog posts.

Many people who come to this site probably don't know that I play music, so I've added a music section in the sidebar just below the network section. There, you can listen to or download 10 of my songs.

I plan to eventually add more, but it'd probably help if I recorded them first. Hopefully, once I have a tidy compendium of songs, I'll set up a donate button where I allow free downloads but ask people to donate to some charitable cause in China. I'm not a full-time musician and have no desire to be one, so I can only spend the time and effort to produce music if I know it's going to be bettering people's lives.

Let me know what you think of the music and the look of the designs on the right, even if you think both are horrendous. I'm just happy I was able to pin this down and that my blog didn't make me tap out before I got it done.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Faces, not Statistics

Bangladesh has about 160 million people - more than half the U.S. population - crammed into a landmass roughly the size of Iowa. Panama has about 3.2 million, less than the Atlanta metro area. Chile, that skinny border of a country that snakes down South America's western spine, has nearly 16 million people, arguably a million or two less than Shanghai, China.

China, of course, is the most populous country in the world, with anywhere between 1.2 and 1.5 billion depending on which way the wind's blowing on the day you ask.

I could go on, but I think I've made the point that I know way too many country populations off the top of my head. This isn't a weird hobby. It's a natural effect of working as an international business reporter, where I write daily about well-known countries like South Korea (almost 50 million people) or more obscure ones like Mongolia (about 2 million. Okay I'll stop. Really.)

There's a tendency, for me at least, with all this focus on macroeconomics, to forget the people that make up the masses we call populations and that depend on this money we call economy to survive. When I stare at the computer screen too long, writing about faraway places without visiting them, people become statistics, big crowds, not living souls who have hopes, fears and dreams.

It's impossible for any human being to try to remember every face he sees, and no one would expect us too, especially after we've visited a place like China, where you can see hundreds of thousands in one day. So we compartmentalize. We formulate a ranking system, kind of like a criminal lineup or a forensic database, to rate the faces in order of importance. Family faces are usually at the top, friends usually toward the middle, and acquaintances on the lower rungs, filed under "People I kind of care about."

Luckily, the database in each of our brains is different. Like a social networking Web site, our face files often overlaps with those of the other members of our social circle. But sadly, that's where we think it ends, like the shore of a lake stops the water's sprawl toward land. We act as if our personal borders are the high-fenced places where caring should end. For those beyond our walls, we're just too busy.

I like to believe something different, though. We don't see it often (maybe the fences are too high) but our social circles, those compilations of faces that we notice, are like ripples in huge ocean, linked together and ever expanding across the surface of humanity. It's kind of like the six degrees of separation thing. Everyone is interconnected.

This hit home while I was driving the other day with the window down. I heard a bird here and there, but mostly it was the squeal of the bus's breaks or the roar of a car's engine that caught my ear. Although traffic noises aren't generally the most soothing sounds, it was nice to hear signs of life outside my car. No radio advertisements. No music. No Chinese audio CD. Just people going about their daily lives, navigating this web we're tangled in together.

At that moment I thought about my travels to China, all the faces that I've seen in five trips there. It must be in the millions. I don't remember every one, but there are some indelible faces that I can't shake from my brain, images that have crept up into the "People I'll remember" file. One is a skinny 6-year-old girl with a shaved head who was obsessed with ears and could say one English word: apple. Another is a girl who looked like she might be 3 years old, left unattended on a concrete staircase in a remote village. Still another is an old man with ratty clothes, smiling as we walk away from the hovel where he shared his family's harvest of watermelons with us.

When those faces flashed through my brain, I sort of felt sad, like I was letting them down by not remembering them more often. These are people, not numbers; faces, not statistics. They are in someone's circle, and they're as dear to their families as my wife and mother are to me.

Not only should I care about them in this general sense, but if I believe that this life is only a segue into eternity, shouldn't I pull out all the stops in putting them on the narrow path that leads to life?

There are more than 6 billion people in this world, 6 billion faces, all shapes and colors. God loves every one.

Photo: Yunnan Province, China. Copyright Brad Kinney 2006.